By Mahmood Hasan
October 26, 2015
Death is everywhere - in Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza. Everyday young Palestinian men, allegedly caught hurling stones at the other side, are being shot dead by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF). Since October 1, 2015, 56 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli forces while 1,900 Palestinians, including 391 children, have been injured. Eight Israelis have been killed from stab injuries.
It all started with Israel trying to change the “status quo” of the Al Aqsa Mosque (Haram al-Sharif) - the third holiest site for Muslims, after Makkah and Madina, situated within the walled city of Jerusalem. The Jews, who call it Temple Mount or Har Ha-Bayit in Hebrew, also consider this site to be sacred to their beliefs.
During the Ottoman Empire, Jews were allowed to visit Temple Mount but were not allowed to pray there. Jews could only pray at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall but not enter the holy site. Thus a status quo was initiated.
When Israel occupied Jerusalem in 1967, the status quo was renegotiated and the Jerusalem Islamic Waqf, which was under the Jordanian Ministry of Sacred Properties, was entrusted to administer the Mosque.
Since 1967, Israel has repeatedly tried to change the delicate “status quo” that had existed for centuries. Jewish zealots claim that Haram Al-Sharif was built on the site of a Jewish temple that Romans destroyed centuries ago. Radical Jews apparently want to replace the Mosque by building a synagogue in its place. These reported attempts by Israel to forcefully change the “status quo” have fuelled violence between Palestine and Israel.
On July 26, 2015, the Israeli police forcefully entered the Mosque and 19 mosque security guards were injured in the ensuing clash. Israel then imposed restrictions on women (mourabitoun) and men (mourabitat) under the age of 30, who probably consider themselves to be defenders of the 'noble sanctuary', from entering the Mosque compound. Entry of other Muslim worshippers into the Mosque compound has since been restricted by Israeli police.
In mid-September 2015, Israeli police escorted dozens of radical Jews into the holy site to mark the beginning of the Jewish New Year, thus sparking off the current round of violence.
The first Intifada (Palestinian uprising) lasted from 1987 till the signing of the Oslo Accord in 1993. In 2000, when Israeli Opposition leader Ariel Sharon forcefully entered the Haram al–Sharif, the second Intifada was triggered, lasting until 2005. Both Intifadas were led by Palestinian political parties.
But now it is a leaderless uprising. Young Palestinians have used knives and sharp weapons to attack Jewish settlers. They have apparently acted individually and not under any instruction or in any coordinated manner. They have not used firearms or bombs, as was seen in earlier clashes. None of the mainstream Palestinian parties – Fatah, Hamas or Popular Front for Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) - is involved in the current spate of violence. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has refused to condemn the violence and urged protesters to remain peaceful.
As expected, the IDF freely used heavy weapons to shoot down attackers and suspects. As fear gripped Jewish settlers, checkpoints sprung in the city to curb the movement of the Palestinian people.
What is exceptional is that this young generation of Palestinians has only seen occupation, brutal killings, systematic destruction of Palestinian homes, illegal Jewish settlements and Israel's dehumanising treatment of Palestinians. Unemployment and poverty is their constant companion. This generation knows that they have nothing much to lose except their lives. They are also deeply frustrated about the fact that their leaders have failed to achieve the state of Palestine, even after 22 years of negotiations. The older generations of Palestinian leaders seem alienated from the younger ones.
On the diplomatic front, on October 16, at Jordan's request, the UN Security Council met to discuss the spiralling violence. While Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for restraint, the French proposal to deploy monitors at the holy site was rejected by Israel.
On October 21, Ban Ki-moon visited Jerusalem and Ramallah to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Both Abbas and Netanyahu accused each other for the escalating violence with diametrically opposed narratives. Neither appeared ready to scale down the hostilities. US Secretary of State John Kerry met Netanyahu in Berlin on October 22. Kerry also met Abbas and King Abdullah in Amman on October 24. Abbas told Kerry that Israel must maintain the “status quo” so that peace can be ensured. Thus, there seems to be no sign of a break in the ensuing violence.
All this seems to be a result of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Natanyahu's new coalition cabinet that was formed in May 2015. Netanyahu's Likud Party leads a coalition of four extreme rightwing parties – Kulanu, the Jewish Home, Shas and United Torah Judaism. Netanyahu is in the clutches of these ultra-Zionist lobbies, as he has a precarious majority of 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset.
Netanyahu himself is a hardliner and believes in complete Israeli sovereignty over East Jerusalem, including the Al Aqsa Mosque. He has openly been funding some of the Jewish extremist groups, such as the Settlers Movement and Temple Institute, whose main aim is to demolish the Al Aqsa Mosque and build a synagogue there. As long as Netanyahu continues to patronise these Jewish fanatics over the “status” of the Mosque complex, the current confrontation and violence will continue.
The worry is that the current wave of violence can turn into a devastating religious confrontation. If that happens, it will make way for ISIS, from neighbouring Syria, to gain a foothold in the otherwise secular Palestine and cause havoc, thus creating new complications in the Middle East region.
Palestinian Intifada is an ongoing process. Palestinians have never accepted the occupation of their homeland by Israeli forces. There has never been a period of peace, only lulls; and so the Palestinian resistance and struggle goes on. Israel's attempt to change the “status quo” of the Al Aqsa is a dangerous act; one that can lead to a full-scale Intifada.
The writer is former ambassador and secretary.